It’s funny how all the slang terms for this simple little device compare it to other, more complex musical instruments. Perhaps people are embarrassed by its very simplicity. They think of a harmonica as something you give your nephew or niece for Christmas, so they can learn to play ‘Oh, when the saints go marchin’ in’ (following the instructions provided, assuming they’ve bought a Hohner Marine Band, which most people do) before discarding it a couple of days later.
If that’s what you think too, I suggest you listen to a bit of Sonny Boy Williamson (I or II, they’re both good), or James Cotton, or Charlie Musselwhite, or the greatest of them all, Little Walter. Acoustic or amplified, the mouth harp is one of the essential blues instruments, to the point where I don’t really consider a blues band worthy of the name if it doesn’t include someone who can play it.
It’s also the instrument that Trevor, one of the three main protagonists of my novel, learns to play in order to audition for his new friends’ band – and the instrument I tried to teach myself when I was 18 or so. Having discovered rock and blues music, and realising that by the time I’d learnt to play something complicated like guitar or piano I’d be too old, I homed in on the blues harp as my one chance to join a band. (This was all purely theoretical, you understand. I didn’t actually know anyone who was in a blues band, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to approach them.)
So I went to Hammond’s Music Shop in Watford (just as Trevor does in the novel) and bought myself a Marine Band and a book on how to play blues harp. And sure enough, with a bit of practice, I taught myself to play the tunes and solos in the book – bent notes, vibrato and all.
The trouble was, as soon as I ventured away from the book I was lost. Even with something as simple as blues harp, you need to understand a bit of musical theory to play it properly, and that’s always been a mystery to me. I just don’t understand how you know which note to play next if you’re not following it in a book.
I persevered on and off for a couple of years, but eventually the penny dropped: I wasn’t destined to be a blues harp maestro. It was only years later, when the idea for First Time I Met The Blues was germinating in my mind, that I realised I could indulge in a bit of wish fulfilment through one of my characters…